STARMUS Earth: The Future of Our Home Planet

Photo credit: Tanja Holc

“When we go to Mars, we can’t forget to bring a poet”. These were astrophysicist Joel Parker’s closing remarks at the seventh edition of STARMUS, an ambitious festival combining science, art and music. Co-founded by astrophysicist Garik Israelian and Queen guitarist Sir Brian May (who holds a PhD in astrophysics), the festival combines lectures by world-leading scientists and performances by renowned musicians. It celebrates the importance and power of science communication, and aims to “inspire and educate the next generation of explorers and regenerate the spirit of discovery” – and based on my experience, it does this exceptionally well.

I was very fortunate to attend this year’s edition, STARMUS Earth, which took place 12-17th May in Bratislava, Slovakia. This edition shifted the focus from the usual exploration of the wider Universe to the current state and future of our planet. Its lectures covered several aspects of the Earth at this critical time, calling for action and hope in attendees.

The main lectures were opened with a keynote talk by primatologist Jane Goodall, the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees. Entitled Reasons for Hope, her talk urged attendees to fight apathy in the face of climate change, and not undermine the power of individual actions. Dr Goodall named the human intellect as her first reason for hope and then highlighted the resilience of nature: “We can destroy places, and given time and perhaps some help, nature will return.” But according to Dr Goodall our biggest hope lies in the dedication of young people to the cause; she founded the Roots & Shoots programme to encourage youth to tackle environmental issues. Despite humanity’s horrific impacts on the Earth, she remains optimistic: “There’s this window of time, where if we get together, we can truly make a difference… cumulatively, we can change the world.”

Another outstanding talk was given by Sylvia Earle, a renowned oceanographer and marine biologist. Dr Earle highlighted the immense importance of oceans, as they not only represent 97% of the Earth’s water, but also around 97% of the biosphere. She talked about her work in the development of vessels for accessing the deep sea, and shared awe-inspiring stories from her time living underwater, observing the individuality of fish, octopi and other animals (something Dr Goodall observed in chimpanzees). Dr Earle was one of the awardees at STARMUS’ central event, the Stephen Hawking Medal ceremony, which celebrates achievements in science communication. Fellow awardees of the Medal were artist Laurie Anderson, director Christopher Nolan and legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

Other STARMUS speakers included numerous Nobel Prize laureates including Professor Michel Mayor – discoverer of the first exoplanet – and others such as Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke. Lecture highlights are available on the STARMUS YouTube channel. A memorable common thread shared by the astronauts that spoke was the realisation of the fragility of the Earth upon seeing it from space, the thinness of the atmosphere that sustains us  –  something they wished they could express in a poem. Moments like this showcase the importance of STARMUS, highlighting the need for both scientists and artists in exploring the Earth and Universe.

The festival ended with a panel discussion on whether space exploration is justified at a time when climate change urgently needs to be solved. It was agreed that just like art, the spirit of exploration and discovery is something that reminds us to be human – something STARMUS Earth was brimming with. By giving attendees the unique opportunity to engage with world leading experts, the festival did an excellent job of inspiring us to spread the word and take action to make the world a better place. The next edition of STARMUS will be announced soon.

Written by Tanja Holc, one of EUSci’s Sub Editors, who recently completed her Integrated Masters in Astrophysics and is starting a PhD in Astrobiology.

Edited by Emma Walsh, one of EUSci’s Online Editors, who is currently an undergraduate studying Biomedical Sciences.

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